Emotion and Authenticity: The Keys to Going Viral

How the sharing mentality can make you a video sensation
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For a brief moment this past summer, the news media was fascinated by unknown and longshot candidates for public office winning primaries against entrenched congressional incumbents. In New York, 28-year-old political novice Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez knocked off a 20-year congressional veteran and power broker. Her success was attributed to the skillful use of video that went viral, capturing the attention of voters and creating a buzz.

Though going viral is a term that’s been with us since the dawn of social media, savvy marketers should be attuned to how to get something to go viral as they put together marketing plans for 2019 and beyond. To gain some insight, I turned to the ever-helpful wikiHow, which I’ve used over the years for guidance on how to accomplish a variety of tasks, complicated and mundane. Based on my years of marketing and public relations experience, the website’s concise and insightful prescription for going viral is worth sharing.

A word of caution: Though there’s much truth in wikiHow’s observation that “nobody can really put their finger on what causes something to go viral,” I tend to agree with former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who in 1964 was asked to define obscenity: “I know it when I see it.” In the final analysis, notes wikiHow, the challenge is to improve your chances of achieving a viral outcome while accepting that much of going viral is going to be about luck and good fortune.

So what does going viral actually mean? According to wikiHow, it refers to the fact that “your content resonates so enormously that it catches fire and ends up being the latest big thing across the Internet. It is when your content gets liked, retweeted, republished, commented on, blogged about, talked about on the streets and earns you more views than your wildest dreams could ever have imagined.”

Two examples of viral videos from the 2018 congressional campaign cycle, which The Washington Post says exemplify “visual storytelling at its most exquisite and economical,” are worth watching. First, because of the parallels between cash-starved marine marketers and novice public-office seekers. Second, because having spent the first 20 years of my career at BoatUS as its sole Washington lobbyist, I believe marketing in the pursuit of politics, to turn a phrase, is no vice.

Going viral is precisely what happened to M.J. Hegar, a retired Air Force pilot who served three tours of duty in Afghanistan and was awarded the Purple Heart. She’s a candidate for Congress from Texas who’s hoping to unseat an incumbent. Her campaign video, Doors, went viral on YouTube and Facebook and has been viewed online by more than 5 million people, turning her longshot quest into a horse race. It also raised $750,000 in campaign contributions in 10 days for Hegar at a production cost of a mere $45,000.

What made Hegar’s video go viral? While inspired, heart-tugging content is essential, her video tells an authentic story with which people from just about every walk of life can identify. Whatever your political bent, I urge you to watch it on YouTube — without shedding a tear.

A similar story about a female veteran and pilot, Amy McGrath, who overcame a 47-point disadvantage in early polling and went on to win her primary, can be attributed to the success of her viral video, Told Me. These videos impart important lessons for marine marketers who don’t have budgets for television ads but are interested in using social media to reach a wide audience. Although they were produced on relatively shoestring budgets, they succeeded in getting their “product” known. That’s a solid marketing double, bordering on a triple.

So what does wikiHow say about hitting a viral home run? You have to recognize that you can’t actually make what you produce go viral, whether you post on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, LinkedIn, Vimeo, Flickr or Snap, a blog or a tweet. The best you can do is take steps to increase its chances of going viral.

Some of the most successful viral videos are either compelling human- interest stories, such as the Hegar video, or funny dog tricks. The common denominator is content that both attracts an audience and moves it to share that experiential content with others, resulting in a snowball effect.

Content that produces an emotional response is especially effective for going viral because it often compels people to take action. Awe-inspiring stories, uplifting messages, feel-good copy, breaking news, warnings, quirky topics, and cute pet and animal pictures that are built into a marketing campaign are also likely to be shared.

While it’s difficult to turn our recreational subject matter into emotionally compelling content, quality information that’s useful to boaters and makes their lives better or solves a problem can improve your chances of a video going viral. Keep in mind that consumers can smell a promotional stunt a mile away, and if you cross that line your efforts will be exposed.

Many of the more successful viral videos of late are anything but slick. Even though hours of post-production is the rule, these videos seem unscripted and have the look and feel of the cinéma vérité style of documentary filmmaking. That said, posts with pictures and infographics get more than twice as many shares on Facebook and Twitter than those without images, according to the Sprout Social blog.

Once you craft your message, deliver it using a social media platform that has the right following for for what you’re conveying. Tag and keyword everything you can to make it easy for search engines to do their job.

Publicize your content on a variety of social media platforms and target as many influentials or celebrities who have their own audiences. Use RSS feeds, microblogging sites and forums that will link your content to audiences you believe will find your message attractive. Again, be cognizant of how your message will be received. Be selective in what you promote. Too much promotion, and you run the risk of turning off viewers.

Also, be aware of the timing of your post. According to Google, the best time to post is 1 to 4 p.m. — specifically, 1 to 4 p.m. on Thursday and Friday, 3 p.m. on Wednesday and 12 to 1 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

A good way to increase your chances of going viral is to ask viewers to retweet your content if they like what they see. In addition, make sure it’s easy for people to contact you, and be responsive when you do get an inquiry. It’s said that common courtesy can produce wonders, and using the word “please” can start the ball rolling.

Michael Sciulla

Michael Sciulla

Michael Sciulla is president of Credibility & Company Communications, as well as vice president of the Marine Marketers of America and a member of the board of directors of Boating Writers International and the Marine Marketers of America. During a 28-year career at BoatUS, he built the association’s brand as membership grew from 30,000 to 650,000. As chief lobbyist, he testified more than 30 times before a number of congressional committees.

This article originally appeared in the December 2018 issue.

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